You Can’t Give Something to Nobody
The law of conservation of energy is generally recognized as universal and immutable, like the law of gravity. If we move from physics to politics, can we assume that at least metaphorically, power is, similarly, something that coalesces and dissipates and pops up from time to time in odd and unexpected forms, but is not something created out of nothing, nor is it something that can just be done away with so that it ceases to exist?
When an individual accumulates power in the sense of being able to command resources and influence the behavior of others, does that power simply vanish when that individual departs the scene? No, that power is dissipated according to laws, customs, and circumstances. Designated heirs share the accumulated wealth, while they and perhaps others divide up the authority to command that was formerly concentrated in the departed individual. The King is Dead, Long Live the King! Individuals come and go, but they are only the temporary caretakers of whatever power they have accumulated.
This humbling thought can be applied to kingdoms as well as to kings, and to empires. Toynbee was not the only one to comment on the rise and fall of empires. We know that when an empire collapses, there follows a period of confusion after which a new order rises that consolidates the power that was formerly concentrated in the imperial nexus. The chaos that follows an abrupt collapse of a power center can be costly. Political theorists will mostly agree that democratic forms of government evolved in large part to minimize the costs of these transitional periods by providing for an orderly transfer of power when circumstances require existing power patterns to be realigned.
The Second World War destroyed existing international power patterns so thoroughly that it took quite a few years for new patterns to evolve. The case most relevant to the present analysis was the former British Empire, one of the more durable and extensive ones of the modern era. The war busted the British economically, and after the Suez crisis it became obvious to even the diehard imperialists that they simply could not afford to pretend to be a great power any longer. In an uncommonly sensible act of realism they consciously turned the responsibility for maintaining a global power network over to the United States. The Americans accepted with alacrity and for several decades acted as the global hegemon with varying degrees of success.
Now, in the second decade of the new millennium, the wheel has turned and we find ourselves in a position analogous to that of the British when they came to realize that their imperial days were over. The costs of maintaining a military establishment that can project our power anywhere have become prohibitive and well beyond the capacity that even our most productive of societies can support. Our efforts to project that power in faraway places are failing, and our will to continue the good fight is undermined by an increasing national sense that it isn’t worth it. But unlike the British, there is nothing approaching a consensus as to whether and how we should divest ourselves of the mantle of world leadership.
Imperialism is dying hard in our country. We have been wearing the purple for several generations and a lot of people just aren’t ready to give it up. The neoconservatives, with their Israeli partners, are one faction; there are powerful interests in the military-industrial complex, and in the oil industry, that support them, along with a large body of evangelical Christians who have axes of their own to grind, but have been coopted by the neo-imperialists.
At the opposite end of the spectrum there is a hardy minority of isolationists, survivors from an earlier era when Americans were mostly content to let two oceans constitute our primary defense, and let the “Old World” sort out its problems by itself. They seem unconcerned by the likelihood that if we give up our global power position someone else will take it, and if the someone or someones who do so are unfriendly, we may find ourselves in a pickle, the world being as small and crowded as it is today.
There ought to be a very large and powerful body of opinion in the US that favors a middle course, comparable to the many Britons a half century ago who knew the empire had to end, and had a pretty clear idea of the party they wished to give their diminishing global assets away to. I associate myself with that group. The problem is that while there are many of us who realize that we can no longer afford the world policeman role, we have no comparably clear idea of how to proceed. Power is fungible, power flows in and out of power centers in ways that are sometimes predictable but more often aren’t. So what should we do with the power we still have? Yes, we ought to vacate Afghanistan but what happens after that and are we prepared to bear the consequences? So many questions, so few good solid answers. In the great public debate with the neocons and other hegemons, our indecision becomes a decisive liability. Our adversaries make mincemeat of us.
One obvious recourse is for us to arrange for an orderly transfer of our present power to the organization we crafted after the Second World War, the United Nations, and to its affiliated organizations. There are scores of regional disputes and problems that appear insoluble within the region, that the UN could handle, that affect our own interests only marginally if at all. Why do we have to intervene directly? If instead we were to direct our still considerable power toward strengthening the UN, we would enhance our influence within the organization while transferring to it much of the burden of world leadership that we are beginning to find so onerous. It sounds like a no-brainer, a win-win situation.
And yet, it isn’t happening. Recently I sat in on a lecture by an eminent American academic on our strategic options. He sketched out our three main options for a future global strategy. It shared the same basic design as the ones I have proposed here, except that he didn’t mention the United Nations or its affiliated organizations at all, even when explaining the intermediate, limited engagement option I have supported. It was as though the UN didn’t exist. Even more unsettling, none of the pundits at the lecture raised the UN as a strategic option during the extensive discussion that followed the lecture.
What’s going on? Is it possible that except for a muted minority, Americans have been deflected from thinking that we can best shed our imperial role if we opt for turning much of that burden over to the UN? How did this happen?
President Obama probably favors a pro-UN internationalist approach to many strategic issues we face but he cannot afford to come out and say so directly very often, for anti-UN sentiment in the US is strong enough so it would cost him votes. There is an unfortunate overlap of interests here, between the neocons and the evangelists, with the remaining isolationists standing on the sidelines cheering. Israel is a major factor, exercising an influence on American strategic thinking that far outweighs its intrinsic strategic significance in any rational calculation of US interests. Israeli actions depend increasingly on US support while the rest of the world sympathizes with the Palestinians; the resulting polarization is increasingly viewed by uninformed Americans as signifying that the UN is our adversary. Israeli-friendly media in our country play on this factor.
There is a vicious circle operating here, that strengthens the imperialism-at-any-cost school. If power is fungible, and if the logical place to direct our power if we choose to divest portions of it is the UN, then helping the uninformed portion of the electorate view the UN as an adversary strengthens the hands of the neoconservative elements who don’t want us to divest it at all.
There are many in the anti-imperialist camp who remain committed to the ties that bind us to Israel, and have been unable or unwilling to recognize this inherent contradiction. If they can loosen the bonds that tie them to Israel, they can see the interests of our nation in a less parochial light. They will then see the connection, and in their hearts as well as their minds, vote for humanity over the Jewish state, and for the USA as a participating member of the world community, not as the heroic lone ranger standing up for little Israel.
Once that happens we can get back in step with the rest of the world.
Carl Coon 10/1/11